Monday, December 21, 2009

One More Round - Packaging Photos

More Photos of Packaging

Christmas Packaging Contest 2009 - My Theme - "Recycle"

Well, I'll keep this short and sweet and show mostly photos. If you'll read a recent post, you'll get the background story on this crazy Christmas packaging contest between my sister and I.

My theme this year is "recycle". Actually, most years you might as well say the theme is recycle, since it used from scrap or trash. But this year, truly recyclable materials.

Yes, two bows were made out of melted water bottles (and poker chips for a little "pop"). Ribbons and bows made out of magazine pages cut in strips, Diet Coke or Sierra Mist cans, or plastic bags. Brown paper, newspaper print, yellow pages, aluminum foil and a few bread wrappers here and there were also used. Some lucky winners received gift cards in aluminum cans, Mason jars or jelly jars...what can I say?

And of course, lots of tape and glue.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Letter 2009

Well...had a few folks wanting to pass the letter to others online, guess I'll put it on my blog. May put some past Christmas letters on the blog as well, and try not to worry about telling my life story on the internet. Here you go...

Dear Friends,

You know what is scary? I have the file folder of Christmas letters that I have written in years’ past in front of me...I started writing Christmas letters in 1991, a year after I moved to Nashville. 18 years ago? No wonder I struggle with something new.

Well, they all tend to start with an update. I’ll be honest…who wouldn’t want this letter to update you on a new boyfriend, or marriage, or kids? Dang, I could have grandkids by my age now. But none of that has been God’s plan at this point. I wish that I had these blessings, and quite honestly I get a little frustrated with God on this, but don’t we all have things in our life that we simply ask God, “Why?”

We’ll get to that later…for now…another career update…and I may love my job, but it is not my life…

I’m still working for the State of Tennessee, overseeing marketing in the tourism department. I’m very blessed to have a job. Some of my wonderfully talented friends have lost jobs in this past year or so, it’s tough times and I think we’re all reminded that it can happen to any of us. I’ve been especially busy this year, traveling the highways with a new trail project that we’re working on. In a nutshell (and only describing because it has taken a large portion of MY LIFE this year), we are developing 15 self-guided driving tours (that we call trails) out of cool areas like Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville and the Great Smoky Mountains. Trails highlight “hidden gems”, including historic sites, state parks, dive restaurants and unique shopping. Tough gig for a small town girl to eat at a dive restaurant, sample a winery or take in shopping on an historic town square. It’s actually been a ton of work, specifically in research, and where are my history teachers now? Now, I’m loving history and I hated it in school. Anyway, we filmed Rascal Flatts driving in a convertible for a TV spot to promote this program, so look for that in the spring; and know that when you see them in the car, I was watching with a camera monitor in the back of a pick-up truck in front of them with my hair blowing everywhere despite the pony tail holder. Nice.

Other typical updates…home projects…a top-notch food pantry addition and that’s about it. Christmas packaging contest with my sister (who I know has no time to compete this year…), my theme is recycle. In a few days, you can go to my blog ( and you too can a learn how to make a bow out of a Diet Coke can or magazine pages. I know, crazy, can’t help it.

So, enough updates; now to bring some collected thoughts regarding Christmas for me this year…

I’ll start with an unfortunate experience I had this weekend while waiting at the valet outside a Nashville restaurant. Two couples, dressed nicely and coming from a Christmas party at one of the restaurants, were talking. One of the guys said, “I love Christmas, everyone is so nice and pleasant during this time of year.” I thought…well, that’s nice. It also appeared that they were a little half-lit, we should say. He then said boldly, “After all, this is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord…” and with a laugh, he said, “Wonder if Jesus enjoyed that birthday cake shot I just drank for him?”

Wow…what an approach on the holidays. I wasn’t there to judge them. But I did immediately think how sad God probably is with much of this world, if that is the respect we are having for what He did for us by sending His only Son to us, born in a manger and later to die for our sins.

Reflecting further, I thought about my own attitude with not only Christmas, but with so many things this year. I certainly could give God more respect. Not as obnoxious as my example above, maybe. But in so many ways…my daily living, in growing with a church family, in my actions, in what I give back to the world around me…God deserves a lot more than what He’s been getting from me. And sometimes, so do the folks around me.

Another thought. Most of November and the first week of December I was either traveling within Tennessee for trails or I was at sales shows from Reno to NYC. I felt like I had too much going on to plan a
Christmas Party (hope you don’t feel like I had one and you were not just were not invited). With no party and not home much, I didn’t really feel like putting up Christmas decorations either. Why go to all this work just for me and my niece-roommate (no offense, Megan)?

But…as the daughter of Suzanne Mitchell who puts up a tree in every room and tons of Christmas decorations throughout the house, I knew I would be disowned if I did not put up a Christmas tree (or two). Plus, Mom told me that my neighbors would enjoy it. So I did.

And a week later, the bottom-half of the tree’s lights went out. I just rolled my eyes. Normally, I would be checking every bulb, trying to replace the strands, something. This year, I said, “Well, top half is all you can see from outside; bottom half that isn’t lit starts right at the window sill, so who cares?” Wow…who is this person?

So…what’s my point?

It makes me wonder how many folks like myself may feel be a bit half-lit this year. Not drunk, just half-way enthused with life, stuck in routines, maybe burnt out at work or at home. Like so many of us, I feel like I’ve got so much on my plate, and it’s impossible to please everyone. And sometimes, that brings you to a point where you just quit trying.

My point is not to be a downer. My point is that we all have the ability to change our approach.

God is able and has the desire to provide a full and abundant life for all of us. We know that, right? We just need to be reminded of it, and to believe it when we don’t understand what is happening in our lives at times.

And our life may become more abundant when we worry more about what we’re giving back versus what we may not be getting. I need to do that. Look at the movie The Blind Side. Didn’t that make you want to do more? Didn’t it make you wonder what opportunities you missed, which decisions in life when you should have chosen to “stop the car?”

So the tree. Yes, without a doubt, it reminds me that we can short circuit our ability to truly shine when we get things out of balance. And if your light shines just to the outside world, and not inside from top to bottom, what’s the true joy in that?

It also reminded me that my mom, once again, was right. My neighbors would enjoy it. Because it should remind us all that we do believe in the spirit of this season. It should stand as a symbol that we are believers and we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. And what would a world be without the reminders of Christmas tree lights and truly good cheer that God is with us, especially in a world that so often seems to encourage us to avoid Him.

Finally, I pray that all of us get a peace for those areas in our life where we ask God, “Why?” Whatever it is, He has a plan, and He is our foundation.

I hope to be a better friend, a better person in 2010. Too many missed opportunities, too many thoughts not turned into actions. I appreciate each one of you; thanks for your patience, and don’t let my schedule get the best of us.

Merry Christmas,


P.S. Carterville gang, Facebook friends voted for breakfast gathering to be Saturday, Dec. 26th; 9 a.m. at McDonald’s. Hope to see you there.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Packaging Contest

For years, my sister and I have been having a Christmas Packaging Contest. I'm not even sure how long, at least 10 years. And it didn't start out as a contest. You know, we're Spence kids, so we don't tend to do traditional and easy. I don't know which one started it, but either my sister or I got a little crafty one year, and soon we were slightly competing, until we finally declared it an out-right contest.

I remember starting with blank newspaper print (got a roll for free from the downtown paper; they throw rolls out at the end when there's not a lot of paper left on the roll; it was a lot to me, I used it for years...). I wrapped the packages in the white print, and stamped gold stars all over it and had red and green plaid ribbon.

No big deal, you're right. Then the next year, I bought cookie tins at yard sales, spray painted them red, green and blue and stamped gold stars once again. I even designed a logo..."JenTins" and drew it on the bottom of every tin. And that's right, what ever I was buying that year for everyone, had to fit in the tin.

And the competition went up a notch that year.

Eventually, it exploded into a whole different level. One year my sister's packaging was papier-mâché, all in the form of zoo animals. What kid would not want to get his present out of a giraffe or lion figure instead of a box? I know...nuts. We're competitive.

I have a thing for turning trash to treasure, for not being wasteful, and recycling. I was eco-friendly before it was cool. So my packaging often used scrap lumber from my home remodels (one year made birdhouses, another year wooden boxes). Sometimes, it even used Coke bottles...and bottles, and involved Christmas lights in would have had to see it to understand. I wish I would have taken photos every year, I too often did not.

I had a neighbor that was a retired carpenter, Mr. Shaw, who loved the contest almost as much as my sister and I did. I had an unfair advantage when he was alive and helped me build massive scrap projects. Miss him often, especially at contest time.

At this point, my sister-in-law who always had Martha Stewart packaging, rebelled one year and put all the gifts in black trash bags, stating my sister and I had gotten completely out of hand. It was funny.

My sister always waits until the last minute and pulls out some sentimental contraption that basically wins no matter how many hours I spent on my project. One year, she made photo collages for our family, went to Kinkos and had them printed on 11" x 17" paper, and then made gift bags out of the paper. Ugh...why didn't I think of that? One year her packaging was simple, but each one of us had a letter that said exactly how much we meant to her. Dang it, got me again!

Now I know most of you will say that you don't have time for a crazy contest like this, you barely have time to shop and wrap for your presents. Trust me, I know what you mean.

But this contest makes me slow down a bit at the holidays. And in years of gift cards and gift receipts, it brings some genuine thought and sentiment to the exchange that can always use some boosting.
Plus, I enjoy the task of challenging myself. It's the process that is a stress reliever; it's exercise for the creative side of you. For those who say, "I don't have a creative bone in my body" - I disagree. Creativity needs to be exercised and stimulated, and with my family, we simply engaged that skill often; no choice of it getting unused and dusty.

I'm posting the gifts that I made last year...theme for me was "travel" (of course, I'm in the tourism business) and my gifts were mini-suitcases. That's right, you too can save laundry detergent boxes all year, get some fabric on clearance, spray mount it on box, trim with brown duct tape and create a look of luggage. Gift tags were of course designed to look like luggage tags, with play on words like "Late Arrival" (my sister is always late), "First Class" and something else that was funny, but I've forgotten now.

Stay tuned for this year's packaging (almost finished). Theme for this year is "recycle" (shocker). I'll show you how to make a bow out of a Diet Coke can...and more.

My niece and nephew helped me one year, which was fun. With all of my nieces and nephews, I hope a couple of them take up the tradition as they grow up. I know it may never get as crazy as I do with it, but it's a unique family tradition. One that I'm glad that we started, and one that I wish my grandparents would have been alive to see, because this is right up my grandfather's alley. I would have definitely lost if he was competing.

Merry Christmas. Hope your enjoy this crazy and fantastic family tradition.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tailgaiting For Titans? Try This Chicken Dip

I have no idea why I'm posting another recipe. After this post, there will be a non-recipe post for next kitchen is in shock as it is.

That said, just wanted to show this quick recipe because it is SUPER easy. My wonderful friend Bethe gave it to me, who lives in beautiful Chattanooga, and her and her husband, Mike, always make me feel at home when I'm in town.

Chicken Dip

1 pkg. cream cheese
1 9.75 oz. can of Swanson White Chicken Breast (drained)
1 pkg. of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing & Seasoning Mix

Mix with hand mixer.


Serve with bagel chips (I love the sea salt chips myself...)

Still Baking Christmas Cookies...

Weekend is here, and still baking cookies, what can I say? No, haven't started the Christmas letter yet...will get it done this weekend, somehow.

But Christmas is not Christmas unless I get to eat Mom's Italian Cookies. I don't know where she got the recipe originally, but she's been making them for years and my brother and I ususally fight over them (not literally...well...maybe). I can remember when Mom, along with some of her girlfriends - one of which owned the only grocery store in town - would bake cookies for two or three days for Christmas. They baked them at the bakery in Reynolds Market, where later my brother and I would both work at during high school. What a bonus of a small town when you can just use the commercial kitchen at the local grocery store!
My cookies turned out good, but for whatever reason, not as good as when Mom makes them. I'm so blessed to have my mom, for thousands of reasons besides these delicious cookies. I am very thankful for that gift.

Mom's Italian Cookies

8 cups of flour
6 eggs
8 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup milk
2 cups sugar
2 cups shortening
3 T Vanilla

- Preheat oven to 400 degrees
- I used parchment paper on cookie sheets

- Sift flour and baking powder.
- In seperate bowl, cream sugar and shortening
- Add eggs, mixing one at a time, until well blended
- Add flour and other ingredients
- Roll into balls (small, maybe 3/4")
- Bake at 400 degrees for 8 minutes.

Mom told me to mix powdered sugar, little milk and little almond extract; no measurements. I tried to figure out for you, but lost count, but somewhere along the lines of 5 cups powdered sugar, 1 tsp almond and 2/3 cup milk. Just keep tasting.

Sprinkle with red and green cake decorating sugar (before the icing hardens).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Day Two Of Cookie Making

When I finished my food pantry, I went to Sam's Club and bought enough food to fill two carts. I was excited, not real pratical, especially with my travel schedule. So what do you do when a 48-oz. bag of dried cranberries looked good to you? You bake. This cookie recipe was actually on the bag and the cookies turned out great. They taste similar to scones, which I'm hoping means I can eat them for breakfast. Not really. Well maybe.

Oatmeal Cranberry White Chocolate Cookies

2/3 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1-1/2 cups of old-fashioned oats
1-1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 6-oz. package Craisins Dried Cranberries
2/3 cup white chocolate chunks or chips

Preheat oven at 375 degrees. Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar together in a medium mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add eggs, mixing well. Combine oats, flour, baking soda and salt in a separate mixing bowl. Add to butter mixture in several additions, mixing well after each addition. Stir in dried cranberries and white chocolate chips. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack. Makes approximately 2-1/2 dozen cookies.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Big Debut With New Mixer

So, I stand in line the day after Thanksgiving at Kohl's to get a new Kitchen Aid Mixer. I never go shopping the day after Thanksgiving. And I've never owned a decent mixer. But I have a food pantry now, which means more cabinet space, which means I buy things to accessorize it, like a case of spaghetti sauce at Sam's Club just because I liked the label and jar. It's my last room to decorate, what can I say. Besides, any girl that has a nail gun needs a good kitchen power tool, right? I may become quite a chef this year, who knows?

In any case, here is the result of my first use of my mixer...Caramel-Stuffed Cookies, a Paula Deen recipe. And anything with a Rolo stuffed in a ball of dough has to be good.

Caramel Stuffed Cookies

1 package of fudge marble cake mix
2 large eggs
1/3 canola oil
26 individually wrapped Rolos

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper (I didn't have any, so I sprayed with Pam and wiped a little with paper towel).

In a large bowl, combine yellow part of cake mix, eggs, and oil, stirring to combine. Slowly incorporate chocolate mix to form marbled cookie dough. Roll dough into 26 (or so) balls.

Shape each dough ball around one candy, rolling into a smooth ball. Place dough on prepared baking sheets. Bake to 8 to 10 minutes, or until edges are firm. Cool on pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and cool completely on wire racks.

I like to see what I need to get rid of in the refrigerator or pantry sometimes and add extra ingredients. Sometimes it is because it will go bad soon (and I don't want to waste'll note that often as I continue with this blog) and sometimes I'm just tired of looking at it.

So with this recipe, to make the cookies look a little prettier (and just because I wanted to play), I melted white chocolate chips and brushed on cookies. Then I used some left-over Hershey's Chocolate Bars (yes, from Halloween, but they taste just fine), melted those, and placed chocolate in a Ziploc bag, using it like a cake decorating bags, squeezing and cutting a small hole in the corner to drizzle chocolate on cookie.

To melt your chocolate, put in a glass bowl or measuring cup, microwave in 30 second intervals, and stirring each time. You'll screw it up if you microwave it too long, so if it is smooth, go with it. And don't add milk to try to thin it out, that did not work for me and had to start over. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hope you enjoy my blog as I try new projects and venture around in travels and life in general.

Happy Holidays.